Modernization as Consensual Abuse: Contemporary Art for Cuauhtémoc Medina

I disagree with the way in which power is exercised in Mexico, but I participate in the consensus, as I choose not take up as a personal task to bring power down. Cuauhtémoc Medina (AM, 38)

Art has a political effect, among other things, because consciously or unconsciously culture workers as well as mass media celebrities all take part in representations which are producing hegemonies. Cuauhtémoc Medina (AM, 446)

Cuauhtémoc Medina’s book Abuso mutuo (Mutual Abuse) establishes the landscape of art production in Mexico from the 1990s until 2013. Compiled by Daniel Montero and Edgar Hernández, it includes published and unpublished texts written for conferences about curating, artist monographs, texts in which he takes a position and texts with which Medina participated in both national and international debates. Covering three decades of artistic production, Abuso mutuo1Cuauhtémoc Medina, Abuso Mutuo: Ensayos e intervenciones sobre arte postmexicano (1992-2013), ed. Edgar Alejandro Hernández y Daniel Montero (México, Cubo Blanco, 2017). All translations of Medina’s quotes are my own. offers the gaze upon which the monopoly of contemporary art production (Medina’s own) was built during the neoliberal modernization period in Mexico, which occurred in parallel to globalization, the so-called national transition to democracy and to the ongoing civil war in Mexico. The book also establishes the discourses, politics and symbolic battles of this period. The principal thread of the book – announced in its title – is the practice of “abuse” as one of the main forms of mediation in cultural production. At the peak of the era of the End of History, of the undeniable victory of imperialism and absolutist capitalism, “abuse” becomes the blueprint of the relationships between center and periphery (i.e., Klaus Biesenbach and Mexican artists), cultural producers and institutions (via institutional critique), artists and subjects of representation (i.e, Santiago Sierra or Yóshua Okón). By positing “mutual abuse” as something which mediates relationships in the cultural sector, aesthetic commitment and the autonomy of art got superseded by cynicism. As a consequence, a shift to the bad side of history occurred: as melancholy replaced revolutionary Messianism in the First World, in the underdeveloped world, mutual abuse became the main trait of cultural experience. Mutual abuse also became a tool to illuminate the new forms of asymmetrical power relations in the political and/or symbolical fields brought about by neoliberal globalization and by the new global cartography.

In Medina’s narrative, contemporary art begins in Mexico with the “tardy” legitimation of installation as a medium of art production. For Medina, the “belatedness” of the incorporation of installation art in official museums, was due to the perceived differentiated rhythms of modernization2A thesis that has been brought into question by recent scholarship on Juan José Gurrola’s work, a pioneer in Mexico of fluxus, performance, feminism, assemblage and installation. That is, one of Mexico’s characteristics is “cultural backwardness” and that is the reason why painting had been more prominent than performance and installation during the 1970s and 1980s. The situation was partly caused by official bad taste and to the imminent lack of vision of culture bureaucrats: By the State’s failure to subsidize artworks, create publics, build academic spaces and by being more focused on promoting a “minority high culture” (AM, 60) (or already big names) because the bureaucrats were comfortable with extracting symbolic value from them. As an answer to this situation of cultural backwardness and official tastelessness in Mexico, Medina began to draw at the beginning of the 1990s a program of cultural production in an “unrequested proposal” signed collectively addressed to Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the presidential left candidate in 1994. In the letter, the “ideal” museum is posited as an autonomous site, as existing independently of official State culture with the goals of: accumulating an art collection – a Mexican modern, postmodern and “post-mexican” art canon –, professionalizing research and curating; having proper art storing facilities and the equipment necessary to offer permanent public exhibitions (AM, 70). This space would also be focused on the democratization of art and the creation of publics. In retrospect, the program outlined in the letter would materialize years later in MUAC (Contemporary Art University Museum, lodged at the UNAM or National Autonomous Mexican University founded in 2008) where Medina functions as chief curator. MUAC embodies Medina’s cultural policy based on the principle that “the State create proper conditions so that culture can invent its own means of social existence and its own spaces for development” (AM, 60). In this regard, Medina’s cultural policy was devoted to opening up spaces for artists and academics to struggle for democracy in Mexico, parting from the premise that it was necessary to dismantle the officialist cultural logic of the Mexican State. This is how contemporary art in Mexico was allegedly consolidated as an independent realm whose autonomy is erected on an “ethics of independence” maintaining an “oppositional” stance toward the state.

Culture’s relevance in Mexican politics dates back to the 1968 student movement. Writer Carlos Monsiváis tells how before 1968 power was authoritarian and Mexico was in appearance homogenous, with a single religion and political party. The 1968 student movement marked the beginning of cultural battles for diversity and against ideological abuse, positing culture as a space of exception for dissidence. As a matter of fact, the exhibition Medina co-curated with Olivier Debroise: La era de la discrepancia: Arte y cultura visual en México – 1968-1997, (2007) [The Age of Discrepancy: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico (1968-1997)] marked the origin of institutionalized dissident art in Mexico framed by a phrase uttered by Javier Barros Sierra in 1968, the UNAM’s dean at the peak of the conflict between the student movement and the Mexican state: “Long live discrepancy, which is the best [tool] to serve [the people]”. For its part, Medina’s discourse of autonomous cultural management comes across as the natural continuation of the autonomous forms of organization created by the nascent civil society that emerged from the void created by the absence of the State following the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City.

According to Monsiváis, from that moment onward, the beliefs that the government is inefficient and that politicians act only upon their own interests, gave leeway to a multiclass society that rejected the regime and its corruption and began to look after itself3Carlos Monsiváis, “No sin nosotros: Los días del terremoto 1985-2005” (México, Era, 2005), while cultural institutions consolidated as bastions of resistance against the government’s bad taste and corruption. Later on, the State’s perceived inefficacy and bad taste opened up the possibility of a public-private scheme of art patronage and to a model of cultural autonomy based on corporate subsidy and the art market. Consensual abuse becomes thus the facilitator of relationships between institutions subsidized by the private sector and by taxes, and cultural producers: while the latter refused to be coopted by the Institution to produce official discourses by being dissident, institutions now use cultural producers for the sake of the common good, by allowing the exercise of freedom of expression thereby attesting to the country’s democratic health. Writer Daniel Toriz goes as far as stating that a relationship of mutual abuse was established between cultural producers and institutions “with intelligence and knowingly”4Daniel Toriz, “Destacado: “Abuso mutuo” de Cuauhtémoc Medina (Delito de estupro)”, octubre 17, 2017 available online: And that is the reason why for Toriz, Medina and contemporary art carry the heritage of the literary countercultural caste in Mexico, as Medina and contemporary art have become the holders of the “functions proper to intellectual exercise.”5Ibid.

In this context, Medina articulates one of the tensions underlying cultural production from the 1990s: although it seemed that the free market policies were going to destroy the nation (the Mexican welfare state was effectively dismantled while other governmental areas such as finance, militarization and a differential government geared at allowing the legal and illegal free flow of merchandise, money and people were reinforced)6See my book: La tiranía del sentido común: la reconversión neoliberal de México (México: Paradiso, 2016)., the State created an apparatus that transformed the national into social merchandise7Cuauhtémoc Medina in: with a system of scholarships and grants to subsidize the country’s symbolic production. This program was perceived as a brutal form of social engineering with which artists refused to collaborate. That is the reason why first, they resisted to define “Mexicanness” and to contribute to the official cultural policy; second, they took a dissident position regarding identity politics of Anglo-saxon multiculturalism refusing to be defined as “Mexican”; third, they created independent institutions that functioned as counterweight to the symbolic production subsidized by the State apparatus erected by Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s government. In this manner, politicization in art implied to deconstruct the discourses of the nation, identity and to become “post-Mexican” in the sense of des-identifying as “artists from the periphery”, distorting and parodying that status derived from the colonial cartography. Therefore, artists and cultural producers sought to renegotiate the “center’s” symbolic control as a point of reference for art history and production (AM, 268). That is to say for Medina, at the eve of globalization, artists did not attempt to become part of the Anglo-Saxon and European cultural mainstream as “peripheral” (or “subaltern”) but rather, they took up the task to transform their practice in order to define themselves on their own terms, escaping from the symbolic traps of their status as “others” that had been imposed on them by the “colonial/imperial center.” In this context, Medina posits “abuse” as one of the political functions of art in the sense of “abusing” the interests in cultural geographical centers for certain peripheral artistic practices and “abusing” terrorizing tastes, patrimonialism and the emotional customs of the cultural orthodoxy of those old centers of cultural production (AM, 268). At the eve of globalization, “abuse” also meant reconfiguring the relationships of legitimation of discursive positions between the center and the periphery through the dichotomy between the “modern” and the “modernized”.

This dichotomy parts from the Western notion of universalism that includes an abstract “Other” with the function of to occupy and empty place where, in order to paraphrase Lacan, “there is some Other.” We approach that “other” through a symbolic interplay of difference in terms of presence and absence, distance and proximity and through a series of operations to make visible the sayable and sayable the visible of that “Other.” Throughout the 20th Century, the main discourses about Western alterity were: one, anthropology, tied to knowledge production and positing the “other” as object of discovery; two, militancy, which constitutes the other as a messianic revolutionary agent; and three, the other as “subaltern” seeking recognition and being able to express her demands on the terms of the colonizer, sometimes transfigured into “victim” reclaiming restitution of her human rights. In Mexico, however – and it could be said that in general in Latin America due to the heritage of colonialism – the place occupied by the Other of the West is mobile, ambiguous, internal and at the same time external: the Prehispanic inherent to the national past; the revolutionary peasantry (now empowered by neoliberal forms of violence transformed into menacing figure as narco, sicario or kidnapper), indigenous peoples always subject to State policy and programs seeking to incorporate them to the Modern project of the Mexican nation, and Medina’s “modernized.” The figure of the “modernized” is similar to Roger Bartra’s axolotl, a salamander that remains in a larval phase, allegedly reflecting Mexicans’ state of perpetual underdevelopment. In general, the discourse of the “modernized” and the “axolotl” is that of perpetual lateness to Modernity, which Bartra described as “desmodernidad”8La jaula de la melancolía (1987). “Desmodernidad” designates a state of chaos that represented the Mexican adaptation to modernity characterized by being “incomplete,” “badly made” with “poor and precarious materials” and for being “tardy.” For Medina, contemporary art from the 1990s reflects the condition of “desmodernidad” and its agent is the “modernized”, or he who approaches modernity by “putting aside the dilemma between the modern and the postmodern in favor of an unfolding of a new sensibility that demonstrates his refinement as modern while it shows reflexive glimpses at the unequal economic and cultural relationships in dialogue with the languages of global contemporary art” (AM, 273).

The critical sense of the art by the “modernized,” resides therefore in putting forth the nation and identity as “ideologies” and deconstructing them, materializing them in installations and neo-conceptual language (Francis Alÿs) or peripheral anti-capitalism (Minerva Cuevas). In this narrative, Rubén Ortiz Torres embodies the figure of the “modernized” “facing late capitalism as the Apocalypse” (AM, 184). Other representative artists of this sensibility would be Pablo Vargas Lugo, Sofía Taboas, Eduardo Abaroa, etc. In the iconography of the modernized, globalization is set forth as a contradiction: as failed modernity and at the same time, as the most cosmopolite of experiences. The subjectivity of the “modernized” is mainly based on the obliteration of gender, race and class relationships constitutive of Mexican society and it is embodied/its face is the “middle class cosmopolite” and “male prodigy”9See the interview with Medina and Yoshua Okón in: Yoshua Okón, ex. Cat. (México, UNAM, 2017). In that regard, the modernized is neither victim or subaltern but a symbolic agent that registers historical changes with great aesthetic sophistication while he contemplates melancholically and cynically the ruins of modernization. For Medina, another dimension of “the political” in art of the modernized is the need to fissure, break or to unhinge the rules of modernization intervening in social reality to create or evidence tensions that are brought about by inequality exacerbated by the liberalization of the market. In sum, “post-Mexican” art, opposed the languages of canonical modernism (European and Anglo-Saxon) using “third-world” materials embedded in the popular urban and semi-developed world thereby establishing a vein in cultural production seeking to charge against the neoliberal transformation of the Mexican cultural legacy into tropical Disneylands (AM, 85). In other words, “post-mexican” artists produced an iconographic apparatus that sought to account for the new realities brought about by neoliberalism, “perforating” them in order to reconfigure them symbolically. But above all, building themselves in parallel and in opposition to an official image of Mexico based on cultural specificity geared at becoming a merchandise to be exported thereby legitimating neoliberal policies.

By the year 2000, before a global landscape administered by the elite’s repressive tolerance and the transformation of the political into lobbying based on private interests and the administration of antagonism, Medina laid out new forms of “politicization” in art and of aesthetic sensibility. Línea tatuada [Tattooed Line] by Santiago Sierra (1999) is exemplary here because for Medina, the work “proposes passive participation in violence and mercenary contemplation of our subjection to an economic destiny” (AM, 199). At that moment, abuse comes to be placed as the main instrument to mediate human and representative relationships as the inevitable reflection of the incipient absolutization of capitalism. Another piece that is emblematic for Medina of politicized art of the 2000s is Las reglas del juego [The Rules of the Game] by Gustavo Artigas (2000-2001), that consists of a soccer game being played by two Mexican teams in the same court and simultaneously in a gym in Tijuana as two other basket-ball teams from San Diego are playing. The piece draws a form of coexistence without interference, analogous to the model of antagonism in neoliberal democracies that “emerges from the clash between the universality of market relations and political pseudo-democratic design and a society that has been broken by unbridgeable cultural and social differences, subject to differentiated economic speeds and to a battle against the homogenization brought about by globalization” (AM, 232). For Medina, Artigas’ piece also lays forth a fundamental political problem of the battle against the homogenization brought about by globalization.

At that moment, the notion of the autonomy of art based on an ethical relation to the subject of representation is posited as obsolete; simultaneously, artistic critique begins to prevail and become sublimated to political practice at the global level. In a cynical and melancholic spirit, social critique and class struggle are put aside. Political practice in the sensible regime had consisted of setting forth abuse as instrument of mediation in representation and in unfolding strategies of “social interference” and “site specific intervention.” Medina denominates this form of politicization “social baroque,” defined as “a form of politicized sensible practice based on the situation […] that opens up critical-cynical possibilities in exchange for occupying an ambivalent position before the violent process of [global] integration” (AM, 276). In a sense, politicization in art is translated to designing apparatae for capturing contexts with which there is no relation of similarity, but rather a detailed description of what is meant to be captured. In other words, the political of “social baroque” art becomes a kind of cynical, ambivalent and poetic trapping. In his column for the newspaper Reforma on December 8 2010, Medina describes the “correct politicity” of the art of Francis Alÿs or Mario García Torres as the “poetic-political.” According to Medina, these artists execute through their art “politicized operations” seeking to “reinsert interventions whose specificity rescues political operations opposed to the indistinct space of the political.” When he evokes the term “political operation” in opposition to “the political common,” Medina is vaguely referring to the distinction made by French philosopher Claude Lefort between practical politics and political theory, liberal politics and radical-democratic politics. From the liberal point of view, politics belongs to the commons and it is necessary for the proper constitution of a community. From the point of view of radical-democratic politics, politics is a matter of power, competition to govern and for resources. Differently, the political is a symbolic regime and the form in which society represents itself in its totality as a unity and as a collectivity. The political is the mise en scène of self-representation and the interpretation of production and reproduction relationships in a society. In a totalitarian regime, the political is the fusion of power with the social, that is, it implies situating society, the people in the place of power through symbolic unity, erasing the sings of social divisions. But because it is impossible to eradicate these divisions, the political in a democratic regime implies reproduction of the public space through conflict. The problem is that “the people” is always divided and is plural, unity can only be gained through violence and repression, that is, abolishing politics as praxis. In this manner, democracy sets forth conflict and dissidence as necessary constituents to maintain its quality of openness. In order for a society to be democratic, that is, one in which power, legitimacy, identity and unity can be questioned, it is necessary to leave empty the symbolic place of power. The danger of democracy, however, is when particular arrangements of power come to be institutionalized or frozen thereby domesticating “politics as conflict”, making it incapable of challenging the limits of power and disabling it as being able to renew “politics as a regime.”

We must bear in mind that in Mexico, the coming of the PAN (National Action Party or conservative party) to presidential power in 2000, also known as the moment of “democratic transition” in Mexico implied not only establishing the global cultural industries through new private-public funding schemes, but also the obsolescence of the dichotomies between center/periphery, North/South, East/West, First and Third worlds and the wave of violence brought about by president Felipe Calderon’s “War Against Drugs.” This is the moment of the triumph of modernity in Mexico City, which came to be established as enclave of cultural sophistication and main platform within the global circuit of production and distribution of contemporary art. The fantasy of the city in ruins, a torn social tissue and the perpetual cultural backwardness registered and contemplated by the “modernized,” imbued with the desire to have access to the first world as visible and concrete experience, vanished.

From the liberal point of view, with the creation of institutions such as MUAC, whose function is to interrogate, diagnose, archive information, to provide “new mappings” of the social tissue, to testify against abuses of the human rights, antagonism comes to be institutionalized. In other words, contemporary art (and in general cultural production) contributed to administrate the antagonism inherent to the political thereby acquiring the function to produce a consensus coexisting with a new moral regime of permanent scandal that is ineffective for real political mobilization. Bearing these points in mind, Medina’s call for an art that “would reinsert interventions whose specificity could rescue political operations opposed to the indistinct space of the political,” constitutes the diluted inheritance of the “institutional revolution” kept by the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party 70 years in power) constitutive of Mexican authoritarianism now transformed into “dissidence” and the propagation of indignation constituting neoliberal democracy. Melancholy and the moral imperative to produce antagonism, criticality and counter-information have become the phallus, instituted as neo-colonial atavisms within the sensible regime of capitalist absolutism impregnated by cynicism, incapable of conceiving alternatives outside of the capitalist system and of modernity.

The problem is that the exclusive focus on melancholy as underlying politicization in art is a symptom of the forgetting of modernity’s revolutionary tradition, which is nothing other than the right to rebel against power structures. Following Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, one of the constitutive contradictions of modernism precisely resides in the dichotomy between revolution and melancholia10Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).. Neither is exempt of problems: while modernity’s revolutionary tradition fails to account for persisting loss and domination in spite of emancipatory struggles, melancholia constitutes an impasse in revolutionary praxis in the sense of the destruction of the grammar and syntax of praxis. The impatient desire to politicize art and to integrate it to a broader and globalized social context, but that ignores the persisting forms of domination, denotes the loss of the political and blindness before the urgency of liberation struggles and the incapacity to imagine a form of subversive alterity. Traditionally and throughout the 20th Century, Mexican campesinos were thought to be the harbingers of the revolution. At the eve of the 21st Century, for Medina, Edgardo Aragon’s work represents the sensibility of the “new South.” For his installation Tinieblas, exhibited at MUAC within the frame of a series of exhibitions titled “For the Love of Dissidence,” Aragón filmed 13 musicians standing on top of territorial markers of a community in Oaxaca. We see each one of them singled out on a screen and hear them interpreting together the song “Tinieblas” [Fog], a Guatemalan song that is popular in the Mexican Southeast. According to the artist, the piece is a metaphor of territorial struggles amongst different communities, a reflection of the region’s conflicts. For Medina, Aragón attempts in a “beautifully dry and mitopoetic manner the destiny of Latin American peasantry” (AM, 436) and emphasizes the sophistication with which Aragón represents the social tragedy and historical drama present in the transformation of the Mexican countryside from revolutionary utopia to the dystopia of the present. The dystopian transformations of the Mexican countryside encompass the fact now criminality is the only possibility for social mobility, grounded on a new peasant culture based on consumerist violence. Aragon’s “South” posits melancholically the lack of revolutionary subject while we can read in the background how it has been substituted by misogynous and kamikaze forms of violence as the only possible means to escape social relations of domination. According to Medina’s account, another vein of politicized art takes up this crisis of violence as a space for multiform experimentation in order to give testimony to the complexity of our historical moment (AM, 440). Here Teresa Margolles’ oeuvre is representative. Aragon’s and Margolles’ work, however, denote an unconscious substitution of social crisis by internal suffering and this internal subjective expression of suffering is nothing other than a melancholic displacement of real political struggles. For instance, actual struggles against megaprojects destroying the commons are being repressed by the Mexican army and drug cartels are excluded form this narrative because they are justified by modernization and development. Also excluded from Medina’s version of Mexican desmodernization would be Pedro Reyes’ Palas por pistolas (2008), a project for collecting guns from civilians and recycling them as shovels to plant trees, which he dismisses as “psycomagic” (along the lines of Alejandro Jodorowsky), and Silvia Gruner’s work after 2000 for addressing subjective feminine concerns by myopically and mysoginistically reading it as focusing on “frustrated desire or in the failure of romantic possibilities,” “allegories of contained passion,” “personal neurotic outbursts.”11Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Natación y evocación” El Ojo Breve, Reforma N°26, november 2003

In this context, Medina’s “modernized,” differently than Bartra’s “axolotl” is not in a larval stage but is a wounded subject that surrenders before imminent threat of death. Haunted by the repression of the violent traumas and conflicts that are threatening the sociopolitical world, the melancholic subject channels his suffering through extreme sadism or mutual abuse (for example, Yoshua Okón). In sum, the melancholia of the “modernized” is a symptom of domination and points at the political and aesthetic impasse of the present. The reduction of politics to the moral of perpetual scandal in which Mexican cultural institutions are permanently involved in denotes the migration of art to what is politically dead. Furthermore, the ethical and political demand to “enounce the disaster” that is repressed by hegemonic culture is a symptom of the incapacity of incorporating the legacy and permanence of colonial exploitation as a political problem. Consensual abuse as the mediator of social, institutional and relationships of representation exposes the reality of the abjection of neoliberal society. Due to a lack of political horizon in common and to poetic ambivalence, an endless polemics prevail based on the Manichean morals of right or wrong.

What roles does cultural production now occupy in this abject society beyond being its cynical mirror constantly reminding its public – in a Jesuit vein – of its own sins? Perhaps the key in understanding the role of contemporary art is in positing as a field of operations subsidized with unprecedented amounts of money and as such, as a power phenomenon determined by the spheres of production, circulation and consumption in which cynicism, good intentions and liberal guilt prevail. In Medina’s narrative, contemporary art is supposedly politically relevant as a source of anti-systemic thinking and as that which annihilated the PRI’s official culture; now that the PRI is gone, contemporary art, in as far as it is dissident in nature, it now has the ability to maintain the democratic health of the country. This means that contemporary art in Mexico marks the end of nationalist official culture, as MUAC is conceived not as a “cultural dissemination” center but “one of the public plazas of future society” (AM, 424). This conception of museum as “public plaza” reflects a prevailing sensibility at the global level and is echoed by The Square, the artwork installed in Stockholm’s contemporary art museum that stars in the movie of the same title by Ruben Östlund (2017). Inspired by Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics”, The Square is a piece by an Argentinian artist. A miniature utopia is outlined through a square measuring 80 cm on each side drawn on the plaza outside of the museum’s entrance. Inside the square (as a hilarious microanalogy of the white cube) mutual respect and individual responsibility govern, and the purpose of The Square is also to be sanctuary for trust and care where “all share equal rights and obligations.” Some of the questions arisen by the work are: Why must a space like that exist? Why is it so small? How to share “rights and obligations” in a society where gender, race and class inequality are the rule? Christian, the museum’s curator hires a Public Relations team to promote The Square. The PR team proposes viralizing an extremely provocative video in social networks showing a blond girl standing inside the square who unexpectedly explodes. It is not clear in the video whether the girl is the victim of a terrorist attack or a human bomb. After the video is viralized, The Square becomes subject of a scandal to the point that Christian must emit a communiqué apologizing to the public on behalf of the museum. In parallel and in his private life, the loss of his iPhone takes Christian – “Christian” – to a marginal neighborhood in Stockholm and to a situation or racial prejudice, redemption or revenge. In a way, Christian embodies the contradictions of contemporary privilege vehicled by the good intentions of sensible production but that are at odds with the decisions he must make in everyday life because they are irresoluble. One of the contradictions evident in the film is that on the one side, contemporary global art as a whole bears the same utopian function represented by The Square and that Medina subscribes to MUAC as the “public plaza for future society.” On the other, this is undermined by the fact that in order to maintain exhibition spaces public, the museum must function as a site of perpetual scandal, imbued with sadism and melancholia when in truth, contemporary art has yet another function: to épater and thereby entertain the oligarchy with the same conscious or unconscious sadism with which they enjoy their privileges and subsidize and buy contemporary art. In a key scene of the film, a gala dinner takes place inside the museum with celebrities and rich patrons. During the event, “Oleg the performance artist” pretends to be a gorilla in whose presence the public is not supposed to lift the gaze. During the performance, the gorilla wanders across the salon aggressively and threateningly, terrorizing all the guests who look down at their plates. All of sudden, the gorilla approaches a beautiful woman, pulls her violently from her chair and throws her to the floor to rape her. Until then, none of the guests has lifted a finger to move from their chair, each safeguarding their life. For a few seconds, Oleg’s presence and action evidence the reigning social Darwinism and the fact that every man – before this extreme situation – is literally for himself, not even to save others. Finally pushed by bad conscience (not by common good or solidarity, just like Christian and the iPhone episode), one of the guests stands up to defend the woman. More guests begin to help until they subject the “foreigner” with whom no cordial social relations can be established. The reason why I linger on The Square is because the Swedish contemporary society laid forth by Östlund functions as a microcosm of the global sensible regime, torn by racial and class tensions that seek to be patched up with contemporary art’s good intentions: as the site for antagonism, tensions, oppositions and laboratory for a better future. At the same time, Östlund shows how art works as an industry of the symbolic for the elites who subsidize it in order to appease their bad conscience while believing that they are offering something “useful” to society.

In Mexico, as I already mentioned, the advent of contemporary art implied transcending the official culture that produced an image of Mexico that could be exclusively consumed abroad and by the elites. Official culture, however, has now taken another form in a new cultural field for the masses based on the ties between politics, politicians and celebrities. Two examples are our telenovela first lady or the recent celebration of the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution with a free concert by Timbiriche (a pop group from the 1980s) at the zócalo sponsored by Miguel Ángel Mancera’s “citizen” government with a stage framed with light effects drawing national symbols and historical figures. In parallel, there is a cultural field that has been appropriated by the sophisticated elite that consumes contemporary sadistic and cynical art along with products that derive from a new “designed” and refined Mexicanness represented by Enrique Olvera’s cuisine, Carla Fernández’s fashion or the availability of pewter crockery or black ceramics from Oaxaca in luxury shops, etc. In sum, it could be said that the inheritance of underdevelopment in Mexico was a modernity legitimized by joyous sadism derived from the normalization of social Darwinism. Neoliberal policies did not create a tropical Disneyland but what many dreamed of and that NAFTA promised: a sophisticated enclave with production and exhibition infrastructure at the First World level. Today, in Mexico City: we are like them (or even better). The cost that underlies this form of modernity is an addiction to energy, consumption, novelty, speed, technology. In truth, a dirty war against life through a new wave of colonial destruction and dispossession. The legacy of neoliberal modernization is high end cultural infrastructure and contemporary art but also a damaged biosphere and a planet in ruins, and entire communities surviving self-destroying. Would art that could reject modernity while radically seeking to change dominant power structures and social forms based on unsustainable destruction be possible? The political task to defend life against State-subsided ecocide (tacitly approved by the majority of Mexican citizens) is unfortunately very far for the moment from the hyper-sophisticated melancholy and cynicism trapped in the white cubes across Mexico City.

References   [ + ]

1. Cuauhtémoc Medina, Abuso Mutuo: Ensayos e intervenciones sobre arte postmexicano (1992-2013), ed. Edgar Alejandro Hernández y Daniel Montero (México, Cubo Blanco, 2017). All translations of Medina’s quotes are my own.
2. A thesis that has been brought into question by recent scholarship on Juan José Gurrola’s work, a pioneer in Mexico of fluxus, performance, feminism, assemblage and installation
3. Carlos Monsiváis, “No sin nosotros: Los días del terremoto 1985-2005” (México, Era, 2005
4. Daniel Toriz, “Destacado: “Abuso mutuo” de Cuauhtémoc Medina (Delito de estupro)”, octubre 17, 2017 available online:
5. Ibid.
6. See my book: La tiranía del sentido común: la reconversión neoliberal de México (México: Paradiso, 2016).
7. Cuauhtémoc Medina in:
8. La jaula de la melancolía (1987
9. See the interview with Medina and Yoshua Okón in: Yoshua Okón, ex. Cat. (México, UNAM, 2017
10. Ewa Plonowska Ziarek, Feminist Aesthetics and the Politics of Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
11. Cuauhtémoc Medina, “Natación y evocación” El Ojo Breve, Reforma N°26, november 2003


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